“Normal concerned parent” or “distinctly troublesome”?

October 4th, 2013

The last blog post looked at a case which considered whether behaviour by a university supervisor towards a doctoral student was unacceptable in law. This one looks at a case which concerned similar issues in a school/parent relationship.

T v Hall Schools of Wimbledon LLP [2013] EWHC 2728 (QB) (summary and transcript available on Lawtel) concerned a breach of contract claim against an independent school, but various observations about what amounts to unacceptable behaviour by parents are likely to be of general interest and may well be applicable more widely.

The claimants were parents who had placed their 3 children at the school in September 2009.  By July 2012 the relationship between the parents and the school had broken down and so the school terminated their placements.  The headteacher said this was because the parents were “distinctly troublesome”, whereas they insisted they were simply “normal concerned parents who wished for the best for their children”.

After hearing evidence from the school and the parents for 2 days, the deputy High Court judge (Jeremy Richardson QC) formed the clear view that the school was right and the parents’ claim “does not have one shred of believable evidence to support it” [74].

The school had a very clear policy about parental behaviour, reserving the right to end a placement “when the parent or guardian of that child is guilty of serious or persistent misconduct in relation to a pupil, a member of staff, another parent or to the reputation of the school.”  The judge said this was unsurprising since “schools should not, and for the most part do not, have to endure parental misconduct.” [17]

The judgment does not give full details of the misconduct but it manifested itself in the parents’ written and face-to-face communications with the school.  Their letters and emails were described variously as “voluminous”, “long and sometimes quite angry”, “very regular” and “relentless”, “usually involving complaints of one sort or another” and with “hardly a good word to be said”: see [20] and [22].  In person, the parents were described variously as “unreasonable”, “assertive”, “confrontational”, “surprisingly demanding”, with the mother screaming at staff on at least one occasion, which behaviour led to the headteacher insisting on being present at all meetings with staff: see [26].

The following findings by the judge speak for themselves:

  • The mother was “unusually obsessed by her daughter’s perceived lack of success” and “the fact she did not see anything inappropriate with the bombardment of correspondence and her total lack of self-awareness was, frankly, breath-taking.” [23]
  • “The whole tenor of [the mother’s] evidence, and to a lesser extent the father, was of unwarrantably interfering parents who swamped the school with complaints and unnecessary requests as if their children were the only ones that mattered. The parents were self-absorbed and lost, if ever they possessed, any sense of proportion. Their denials of irrationality became ever less plausible as the case unfolded.” [24]
  • “[The headteacher] was moderate of manner and measured in his response. That was not my impression of the claimants who were grandiose, in particular the mother. There was a total absence of any sense of proportion or reality. They viewed everything in a self-centred, self-contained artifice as if no one else but they and their children mattered. They interfered and meddled in the school and made unwarrantable demands of the school.” [27]
  • “[M]ost if not all parents want the best for their children. That is laudable. Parents of children at fee paying schools rightly demand the best but the school must be allowed to be a school. The conduct of the claimants in this case far exceeded the worst excesses of normal concerned parents by a considerable margin. I can well believe their domineering and demanding conduct became an enduring nightmare for the school.” [28]
  • “This parental misconduct – and it was misconduct – was such a shame because, whatever else be their failings, the children are a delight and were much liked by the staff at the school. If only the parents had been sensible, restrained and interested in their children’s progress (and there was progress) instead of foolish, overbearing and demanding, events would have been, I am sure, to the advantage of all their children.” [29]
  • The claimants “were self-absorbed and blinkered as to reality and truth. They each (but Mrs T in particular) lost all sense of proportion in their dealings with the school.” [54]
  • “The parents by their deplorable conduct created a situation whereby there was a complete breakdown of trust between parents and school. They made unwarranted requests, endless complaints and made a thorough nuisance of themselves with the school. This went well beyond the realms of even the most zealous (some might call pushy) parents.” [56]
  • “The assertions by the parents against a principal of an independent school were comprehensively without foundation….To suggest a principal of a school should have agreed to cover up what he believed, indeed knew, to be the truth and for that to have become a term of a contract is, to put it mildly, farfetched.” [74]

Finally, the following paragraphs are likely to be of particular interest and application and are worth setting out in full:

“18….It must be remembered that this was a school and not a company. The primary focus was education. There were times during the cross-examination of both [the headteacher and his PA] that I felt they were being unwarrantably criticised for their absence of notes or form of notes that might have been more appropriate had they been the secretary to the cabinet or the company secretary of a large plc.

46.  [T]he idea that a school has to record every item of information and record in detail every parental conversation represents a paradigm of education in schooling which fails to represent reality. To do as suggested by [counsel for the claimants] in cross-examination is redolent of a litigation culture infecting schools and schooling whereby teachers instead of focusing upon teaching would be looking over their shoulder in case litigation should follow them in hot pursuit. That paradigm of educational practice is not reasonable and I trust is not being actively encouraged. The whole tenor of the cross-examination was presaged upon the notion of a commercial contract and a businessman doing deals, some of which they might wish to camouflage. This was, I repeat, a school dealing with distinctly awkward parents.

75.  The focus of any school should be upon the education and welfare of the children who attend. Of course, parents need to play a full role and take a keen interest in their children. All of that is right and proper. But equally parents must, and most do, appreciate a school is a community that needs to be permitted to get on with its principle task of educating children collectively. No school should be bombarded with unwarrantable demands by parents. Teaching and other staff bear a heavy responsibility in what they do. Looking over their shoulder for fear of litigious parents is an aspect of their professional lives they could all do without.”

 

Paul Greatorex

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